Do robots dream of electric cows?

Three years ago this week, on 4 March 2015, our oldest cow walked into stall number one to be milked by a robot. Five days before, she had also brazenly led the charge into the new shed with some fledglings behind her. This ‘dry run’ was to make the cows familiar with their new space by making it smell like them. 

For 95 years our family milked cows manually. Milking time would vary, depending on the number of cows. In the days leading up to the transition to automation, milking would typically take two-and-a-half hours, plus an average 90 minutes to go and collect the cows and then close the gate behind them afterwards. Twice-a-day milking would double these figures. All up, that’s eight hours a day involving family members and/or farm workers. Milking is an extremely important part of dairy farming, but there’s no denying that’s a lot of time to spend on one aspect of the job.

Says Dad, ‘The first few months with the robots were hard, but we knew they would be. We were lucky to get help from friends, as well as other local farmers who had robots and Lely. Once we got over the settling-in stage and learned how the system worked, it really freed us up to focus on other things.’ Every farm is different, with different challenges, but for Dad, that represented eight hours out of a working day that could be better spent on good pasture management, keeping a close check on animal health, and carrying out restoration work, fencing and general farm maintenance.

For some people, being certified organic and having an automated milking system (AMS) may feel like a confutation. But, for us, in both practice and ideology it feels like a logical fit. Every day, the cows come to the shed when they feel like being milked. Which, depending on their stage of lactation, is anywhere from one to three times a day. The days of rounding the cows up on a bike are gone. Instead, the cows are free to come and go as they please, with minimal intervention from us. Says Dad, ‘They’re very relaxed in the shed. If there’s a line for a robot, they’re often just chewing the cud and waiting for their turn.’

Through observing the cows and the data that the system collects, we know the cows prefer to visit particular robots. They also move around in smaller clusters. Instead of being worked as a herd of 320, we now have a number of smaller groups of cows we believe are made up of friendship groups that come to the shed. This, of course, can happen at any time of the day. We even have a clique that prefers to visit the shed around midnight. Dad can access the data dashboard from an app on his phone, as well as keep a constant visual check on the shed remotely through a real-time camera feed. The robots also have alerts, and when something needs urgent attention, Dad gets a call. 

With our organic approach, it’s imperative that we have a proactive focus on animal health, as there’s no antibiotic silver bullet. The data that’s collected is especially useful at detecting mastitis and the robots can be programmed to ‘draft’ these cows into a paddock beside the shed for treatment. Other data helping us make better decisions is cow temperature and weight, as well as how much milk was collected per cow and out of each teat. Once the cow has finished milking, the gate is opened and she can get a back scratch from a brush by giving it a nudge with her head.

When I was a baby, Mum and Dad had spent a day with our farm advisor at the time at Ruakura, an agricultural research hub just outside of Hamilton. He was involved in robotic trials, and ever since then Dad was drawn to the idea of automated milking. In 2014 I had come back from Sydney, where I was living at the time, for a holiday. Dad thought the time was right, so we decided to ‘do the numbers’ to see if the shift would work. Dad is the first to say he likes a good challenge, and for him it seemed like a way to continue learning and evolving and keep the farm interesting. A year later we became the twelfth farm in New Zealand to get an AMS installed on a dairy farm. Today, four robots milk our organic cows – and it’s quite conceivable they dream about it, too. Unlike the setting in Philip K. Dick’s dystopian novel, though, we think it’s pretty close to paradise.